Philadelphia Flyers' Sean Couturier. Source: Getty Images
A two-way pivot as a first-line center? The idea raised eyebrows, but Sean Couturier's scoring breakout for the Philadelphia Flyers has silenced every last critic.
You could call what Sean Couturier dealt with the hockey equivalent of typecasting. Barely 25 years old, Couturier, a veteran of more than 450 NHL games, had spent his first six seasons in Philadelphia taking on tough assignments and even tougher minutes, out against top-line players and asked to keep them off the scoresheet. He was good in the role. Some would say he played it to near perfection. He earned Selke Trophy votes in each of the past four seasons and twice finished top-nine in the balloting.
Like many of those pigeonholed and stamped as one-tool players, Couturier was lying in wait for the opportunity to prove he was more than what most believed him to be, that he could break out of his shell and contribute in ways other than fiery tete-a-tetes with the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and John Tavares. “Those first five, six years I’ve been known more as a defensive guy, a shutdown guy,” Couturier said. “But I always thought I could bring more offensively. I just had to be patient.”
As it often does, patience paid off.
Looking to spark the Flyers’ offense, coach Dave Hakstol made the decision to shift longtime first-line center Claude Giroux to the left side, flank him with right winger Jakub Voracek and give Couturier a shot as top-line pivot. (They’re cleverly called the 'Ginger Beard Men' now.) Some questioned the decision, citing Couturier’s lack of scoring punch as a flaw in the design. But almost from the moment he hit the ice as a No. 1 center, Couturier has done nothing but assuage all concerns about his offensive prowess.
In his first five outings, he ripped off three goals and six points. He doubled his point total by the 10-game mark and, as the regular season crested the midway point, Couturier was maintaining a point-per-game pace and on track for 45 goals, all the while driving the one of the highest-scoring lines in the NHL. Despite his breakout, though, he's trying not to get too far ahead of himself. “I try not to think long term and instead go by segments, three to five games, and try to do my best during those games and start over,” Couturier said. “If you think too much ahead you get lost sometimes during a year and it can get either frustrating or you can get too comfortable.”
Playing no small part in Couturier’s revelatory performance is a newfound calm to his offensive game. There are outsiders who feared an increased role would expose Couturier, but it’s done the opposite. If anything, he’s feeling less pressure to produce with each passing game, not more. “Going into games you know you’re going to get five or six chances a night compared to before, when you’re playing against top lines but more in the defensive shutdown role, where you’re getting maybe one or two opportunities a night,” Couturier said. “That’s tough mentally. You feel the pressure that you need to capitalize every chance you get or you feel you’re not doing anything offensively. Being a little looser out there helps.”
As does Couturier’s time spent honing his defensive game. Spending the first six seasons of his career with a focus on stopping snipers allowed Couturier a window into what makes those same top-flight scorers click. He learned how they make room for themselves, find holes in coverage and capitalize. Given he’s not an offensive threat known for juking defenders out of their skates, Couturier has to use that on-ice IQ to gain an advantage over opponents, and he displays an almost devious nature now when explaining how he attacks against the same lines he used to be asked to defend. “There are some guys that are pretty solid at both ends of the ice, and those are the guys that are tougher to play against,” Couturier said. “But you have some guys who are all offense. They have great skill, but you can take advantage of their weaknesses defensively. That’s the way I think the game.”
Couturier’s intellect carries over to other aspects of his play, too. “He’s so smart with his stick and body positioning,” said Flyers center Scott Laughton. “He’s always in the right place at the right time.”
That’s not to mention Couturier’s understanding of how to use his 6-foot-3, 200-plus pound frame to make him a devil to get off the puck. “There are big guys that are hard to move but you can figure out how to get to the puck,” said Flyers rearguard Andrew MacDonald. “But the way he feels you on his hip, uses his body to shield the puck and puts it in good positions makes it really tough to defend him.”
And that’s what those looking to flip the script and shut down Couturier are finding out in a hurry this season. “I’ve waited for an opportunity, and to finally get one this year, it’s a huge boost,” Couturier said. “I’m just trying to take advantage of it.”